We all know that wine is an alcoholic beverage, but what does alcohol contribute to a wine aside from the obvious intoxicating effects. Unless it is at an excessive level, it won’t usually be explicitly described or analysed in the tasting notes that you read on wine bottles or from professional reviewers.
So what are some of the roles and effects of alcohol in wine?
Sugar is a bit of a scary word for many people when it comes to wine. Without it, wine wouldn’t be wine really. The sugar that accumulates in grapes is fermented by yeast, the by-product being alcohol and CO2. As the yeast do their thing and
the grape juice becomes wine there are many other chemical reactions occurring which result in the unique flavours and
aromas of each wine, but that is another story. Once all the sugar is fermented to dryness, the second part is the impression of sweetness, without sugar.
A wine that tastes fruit sweet or fruity isn’t technically ‘sweet’ as there is often no or very little sugar present. However, alcohol gives the impression of sweetness on your palate, all else being equal/ constant, increasing alcohol a little more alcohol will give the impression of more sweetness in the wine. A test you can run yourself by adding a splash of relatively neutral alcohol such as vodka to your glass of wine and compare it to the wine with additional alcohol. Aside from the obvious taste and smell of alcohol, the wine will likely taste a little ‘sweeter’ than the other.
Moving away from the flavours of the wine, alcohol also plays a role in the texture and weight of a wine. A relatively common shorthand for a wine’s body or weight is to look at its alcohol content.
Compare for example Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris, the same grape variety that isoften differentiated by when the grapes are picked. The later picked Gris has more time to accumulate sugar which is converted into alcohol, if you have ever tried both varieties you will likely have observed that Pinot Gris is a bit fuller bodied and sometimes has more viscosity to the texture than Pinot Grigio.
The viscosity is also claimed to increase the perception of intensity in wine. Again comparing Gris and Grigio, Grigio will tend to feel lighter, maybe more linear when compared to Gris where the flavours feel a little deeper and more intense.
This of course assumes all else being equal as there are other factors that play their role. Bigger is not always better though,simply continuing to push alcohol higher won’t make a wine better because it feels more intense, we have seen that fail over the past decade or so.
Grenache has been as big a beneficiary of a change in perspective on alcohol as any grape. It achieves quite high alcohol naturally, but instead of seeing big boozy wines as high as 17 per cent or more, we are seeing them down around 14 per cent or maybe 15 per cent where it allows the other attributes to shine, such as the bright juicy red and black berry fruits, subtle dried herbs and plump feel without the big bold tannins of Shiraz or Cabernet. At its simplest, it is perfect no frills, full flavoured and uncomplicated drinking. Mesta source fruit from organic vineyards in the north of Spain for their wines. Produced with early, easy drinking in mind the Garnacha (Grenache) ($15) sits at 14 per cent alcohol, no oak is used
and the winemaking is gentle. The result is a wine sitting just on full-bodied, plush mouth filling flavours of red berries, earth and a touch of spice. Hard to beat given its modest price point.